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American billionaire Stan Kroenke—the real estate and sports mogul who owns more than 2 million acres of ranching land across North America— has just won a decade-long legal battle in Canada to keep the public from two lakes that can only be reached through his property.
Kroenke, who is married to Walmart heiress Anne Walton, owns the largest ranch in Canada—a hulking mass larger than the metro Vancouver area, which fully surrounds two bodies of water: Stoney and Minnie lakes. The lakes, each more than a half-mile long, are both publicly owned in Canada and filled with fish. But the orientation of Kroenke’s property leaves citizens without a route to reach them, forcing would-be hunters and fishers to take a small dirt trail or unpaved wagon road across his land to access the wilderness tended to by their tax dollars.
Kroenke’s ranch, known as the Douglas Lake Cattle Company or Douglas Lake Ranch, used to block access to these routes with locked gates and fences. (Notably, the ranch owns two private lakes on the same property, which visitors must pay an undisclosed day rate to access). So in 2013, the Nicola Valley Fish and Game Club, a local non-profit dedicated to wildlife management in the area, sued the ranch to open the through-ways, arguing the trail had historic significance dating back to its use by an indigenous village, and that Canadian citizens have a right to access public land.
In 2018, a British Columbia Supreme Court judge sided with the recreational group, noting that Canadian tax dollars had been used to rehabilitate the historic trail. But Kroenke appealed, and on Friday, a higher court overturned the 2018 ruling, banning Canadians from “trespassing” on the two paths.
“Our entire club and most of the residents of the Nicola Valley can’t believe that one court of appeals can, with a stroke of a pen, wipe out a 20-day [British Columbia] Supreme Court trial ruling,” Rick McGowan, director of the Nicola Valley Fish and Game Club, told The Daily Beast on Monday. “He swiped out 10 years worth of research and work, all for the benefit of one rich American.”
The appellate judges confirmed in their decision that the lakes and the fish in them are not owned by Kroenke’s ranch, but they accepted his lawyers’ argument that one path doesn’t reach the “natural boundary” of the waters and that there was insufficient evidence to tie the trail to indigenous roots. In their decision, the justices wrote that the trial judge had “added his voice to the chorus of those seeking to limit the rights of private property owners.”
“The (Nicola Valley) club invites us to recognize a right to cross private land where it is necessary to do so to access a lake on land reserved to the Crown for the benefit of the public,” Appeal Justice Peter Willcock wrote in the filing. “In my view, while this argument may attract considerable public support, it has no support in our law.”
Evan Cooke, an attorney representing the Douglas Lake Cattle Company, called Friday’s ruling “the right decision.”
“The DLCC was convinced from the outset that its position in the litigation was consistent with the law of British Columbia,” Cooke said.
Last week’s decision comes at a high cost for the environmental non-profit. The judges determined the organization was not a “public-interest litigant,” meaning it will have to pay the billionaire’s legal fees for his appeal, in addition to the hundreds of thousands of dollars owed for their own. According to the Vancouver Sun, the non-profit has been supporting its own legal fund with picnics and raffles. “It’ll probably be $25,000 or $30,000 [for Kroenke’s legal expenses],” McGowan said. “I don’t believe we’d fundraise to pay the legal bills, but we are arranging financing to take the case to the Supreme Court of Canada on a couple of issues.”
The club’s attorney, Christopher Harvey, told the Daily Beast in an email that “the essential issue in the case is public rights of access to public lakes vs. private property rights of landowners around the lakes.”
“The law holds the balance between those two competing rights, but so far as rights over water are concerned the law has long favored public rights over private rights,” he said in an email. “What is remarkable about this decision is that it reverses this equation... Even though the water is publicly owned, no one is now allowed to travel over it if the bed beneath the water is privately owned.”
Kroenke has made a fortune off land development: Forbes estimates he owns about 30 million square feet of real estate—largely in shopping plazas near his in-laws’ megastores—generating a net worth of more than $8.2 billion. One of his properties is a massive tract of land in north Texas, around Lake Diversion near Wichita Falls. In 2016, Kroenke evicted hundreds of long-term residents of the 35,000 acre-ranch, forcing them to leave their homes with less than fourth months notice. According to the Dallas News, most of the residents were either elderly or lived on fixed incomes. “We’ve got family members that have had leases out here for 50 years,” longtime resident Annette McNeil told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch at the time.
Kroenke has also funneled some of his fortune into sports teams, and owns the NHL’s Colorado Avalanche, the NFL’s L.A. Rams, the English Premier League’s Arsenal FC, and the NBA’s Denver Nuggets, among others. The NFL technically does not allow for team owners to have professional sports properties in competing cities. But Kroenke found a way around the rules: He arranged to put two of the teams under his son’s name, Josh Kroenke, while keeping them in the family.
In 2017, Kroenke got involved with a different kind of sport—an on-demand app called MyOutdoorTV that was dubbed the “Netflix of the hunting world.” The paid bloodsports channel aired, among other features, the trophy hunting of endangered animals, including lions and elephants. After MOTV was widely criticized in the press, Kroenke requested it remove all content related to big game hunting.
Harvey implied that the decision’s legal conclusions left room for another appeal with the Supreme Court of Canada—if the fishing group can afford it. McGowan agreed, noting that the club plans to fundraise to support the effort. “The judge[s] said effectively that water over private land is not navigable for the people of Canada,” McGowan said. “That means they’re just giving it to the landowner for free.”
A spokesperson for the Ministry of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations, and Rural Development in British Columbia said it was too soon to comment on the decision, as the fish and game club may try to get the highest court to weigh in.
The British Columbia Appeal Court’s decision is a landmark case with broad implications for public access to land in a region where many Crown-owned waterways are closed off by private property. The case numbers among a broader international movement over public rights to wilderness, known as the “freedom to roam.” There is increasing pressure in British Columbia to establish “right-to-roam” laws. “It makes no sense to me,” Justice Joel Groves wrote in the original 2018 decision, “that the Crown would retain ownership of the lakes, only for there to be no access.”
“This is not a happy judgment for public rights,” Harvey said. “The attorney general has a duty in law to protect public rights, but in this case that has not happened. The club is entirely on its own.”
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